“Polemic” comes from the Greek word for war. It refers to a contentious argument or controversy. A polemicist, therefore, is one who does not shy away from controversy but strenuously argues for his position, often trying to refute a rival position in the process.

I am not against polemics. It is a necessary virtue for Christians in so far as Christianity believes in the immovability and central importance of truth. Where would the church be today if Athanasius, Augustine, and Luther eschewed polemics? Christians must be willing to enter the fray and engage in controversy if they are to be faithful in a fallen world.

I also know there are many dangers with polemics. I see them in myself and can spot them (more easily, sadly) in others.

1. Polemicists can be over-sensitive to certain errors. Have you ever noticed that most Christians (at least the ones engaged in controversy) have one particular error they are particularly good at spotting? I admit that I tend to be most critical of liberal theology and liberalizing tendencies in the church. I’m sure this is owing, in part, to being taught liberal theology in college and being in a denomination where almost everyone is more liberal than I am. I think often this sensitivity to liberal trends helps me guard against error and protect others from the same. But it can also mean that I’m too quick to pounce on theological mistakes that are more in the category of “honest ignorance” than malicious mendacity.  For others, it may mean they are too eager to swing a large mallet every time a little fly of Arminianism (or Calvinism) or Egalitarianism (or Complementarianism) buzzes by.

2. Polemicists can be under-sensitive to other errors. Over the years I’ve had to learn that just because liberalism is a problem, it doesn’t mean the most conservative position is always the solution. It feels safest to swing as far away from our enemies as possible, but sometimes that only serves to push us into another mistake. I’ve come to appreciate (if that’s the right word) that liberalism isn’t the only mistake bedeviling the church. Some people are loveless, some don’t pray, some can’t get along with others, some are legalistic, some are antinomian, some get off track with justification, others with sanctification, others with end times nonsense, and on and on. A good pastor, or a good Christian for that matter, must have the maturity to see that theological dangers come in many shapes and sizes.

3. Polemicists can lose all sense of proportion. We all have a tendency to lock onto our “thing,” whether that thing is gender issues, homosexuality, doodling in worship, the regulative principle, church architecture, real wine at communion, the Trinity, the ordo salutis, the poor, or seeker sensitive churches. The problem is not with having convictions on all these things. I think many of the items in the list above are extremely important. Several get to the heart of the Christian faith. The problem is when every issue becomes as big as every other issue, so that family-integration, every week communion, and justification by faith alone are all equally essential to the gospel. It’s fine for the Lord to call us to fight certain fights in our day, but we must not assume every fight is as critical as every other.

4. Polemicists can see everything through a single lens. This is true across the theological spectrum. For some people everything comes back to gender roles. That’s their bread and butter. That’s what’s wrong with the world (on either side of the issue). Everything is about the empowerment of women or the assault of feminism. Other people can’t stop railing against revivalism and Charles Finney. For still others, everything is about confessionalism, or pietism, or polity. When I dove deep into the emergent church I vowed to myself that I would not be the anti-emergent guy my whole life. I did not want to see emergents under every rock and be dropping them into sermons and lectures for the next thirty years. They weren’t that important and I didn’t want to become that imbalanced. Some of us never learn to let go of old battles and we never learn there are other things worth fighting for.

5. Polemicists can be less than careful with their attacks. There is a tendency in controversy to oppose what we shouldn’t oppose just to make sure we can oppose what should be opposed. I’ve always thought that N.T. Wright’s correctives regarding Second Temple Judaism would be more helpful if he didn’t go out of his way so often, and in my opinion so carelessly, to take swipes at imputed righteousness, the Bush administration, and anyone who has ever believed in going to heaven when you die. Just as bad are those bloggers who may or may not have an important point to make, but they always find a way to make the point with as much vitriol and alarm as possible.

6. Polemicists can give their opponents too much power over them. There are lots of people in this world and plenty of positions that really bug me. Some of them deserve to be opposed. Many of them deserve to be ignored. None of them deserve to have mastery over your life. It saddens me to see Christians who can’t seem to go a day without thinking nasty thoughts about Tim Keller, or John Piper, or Rick Warren, or the Religious Right, or Barack Obama, or Mark Driscoll, or complementarians, or homeschoolers, or TGC, or two kingdom theology, or the missional mindset, or Sovereign Grace, or megachurches, or those prickly Calvinists, or inerrantists, or your denomination, or your fundamentalist upbringing, or the church that fired you, or that one pastor who hurt you, or that one time your ex-friends were mean to you, or that school that made you wear uniforms as a kid, or whatever. Fight the good fight in the day of battle and give the rest over to God. The only thing worse than That Thing you oppose is what you are like when you can’t stop raging against That Thing.

7. Polemicists can forget that there is more to life than controversy. We can get so wrapped up in the latest blog battle or political gaffe or theological misfire by someone we’ve never met that we forget about our own kids, our own church, our own flesh and blood friends and family members. We can forget to0, that the people we are opposing are complex characters, which doesn’t mean we always have to play “nice,” but it does mean we should remember that every human being we interact with is a mess of sins and struggles and hurts and fears and bright spots and dark places. A little dignified respect is in order, for the sake of God’s image if for nothing else. And most crucially, as we look at the fine print of some present controversy may our eyes not become so squint that we can no longer behold the wonders of being God’s children and the beauties of God’s world. Let us not become morose, peevish, and small when we serve such a good God with such a great gospel and such a glorious heaven. A heaven in which Christ will be all in all, and all our polemics will be put to their just and final end.

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36 thoughts on “Seven Cautions for Eager Polemicists”

  1. Mitchell Hammonds says:

    Good article Kevin. But it seems with every generation there are specific problems, be it cultural or theological, that tend to define a specific generation’s movement away from orthodoxy – I’m speaking primarily about Christianity but the same could be said for just about anything. And I think this is the reason for the repeated focal points on certain arguments – generations make specific repeated errors that are specific to their generation.
    Where I tend to make the mistake is thinking I have to “fix it” in one debate. This is where the frustration intensifies; I have to remind myself to be in the fight for the long haul.
    Great read.

  2. Good word, Kevin! Now, if I could do battle with the sin in my own life with as much intensity as error in the world!

  3. Jeremy says:

    Thanks for being humble enough and wise enough to write this. It was a great reminder and even rebuke to my heart that is trying to let go of certain things and not always doing so. This article is one of the main reasons I read most of your blogs…you are gracious in your comments. Thanks!

  4. Umm…yes, absolutely. I’ve been seeing a few of these points come up in my own heart. I see it any time I even whiff something that smells like Open theism, and I have group of friends that give, pretty much, any subject, somehow there is going to be a swipe about Reformed Christianity included. Seriously, it could be about cereal.

    So, again, thanks for the great piece.

  5. A hearty Amen on number seven in particular.

    However, I do believe that as another commentator pointed out, each era brings with it certain issues that are more urgent than others. For example, I do think liberalism really does loom over most other problems facing the church today. It’s an all-engulfing cloud of darkness. To be honest, the few people still hanging around who pound the pulpit on liquor, or the few crazies like Harold Camping who are out there being weird… they’re just that, few. We need to major on the majors, and if that makes us look like one-trick ponies, we should accept that. Lewis put it well when he said that the enemy tries to distract us from the real problem and pretend that we actually need to be focusing on something else. I fear that some Christians are falling into this trap by saying, “The REAL problem facing the church today is legalism, so let’s calm down on the liberalism thing and start shifting focus.”

    On #6, what if That Thing is just evil, in its various manifestations? Some things and people in the world are working in the devil’s service. If we can’t stop raging against them, that’s a good thing. I’m not sure it’s helpful to take a laundry list of things both good and evil, both crucial and trivial, toss them all together, and then label them all as “Not worth consistently being angry about.” That, I definitely disagree with.

  6. Daniel Broaddus says:

    All good points to consider Rev. DeYoung. I have a question to ask, though. Is it possible to be a polemicist against polemics? Tolerance is the name of the game today. Those who oppose it are the heretics.

  7. Mel says:

    The best thing about Google is that you can block certain sites from coming up in your searches. There are some completely hateful “Christian” sites that I have blocked because they always come up on the top when I try to search something current in the Christian world. If everyone did it then they wouldn’t come up on top anymore.

  8. KDY, I agree with you 100% that to do polemics is virtuous for Christians. I just listened to a lecture from Timothy George last night where he stated: “there can be no dogmatics without polemics.”

    Your title today is ‘Seven Cautions For Eager Polemicists’. Maybe some good advice would be to not be so ‘eager’ to do it. To fight the good fight but not to always be looking for a fight. Maybe that is good advice especially for young bucks like me!

    What do others think?

  9. Craig H Robinson says:

    Sometimes Don Quixote is at the gate and sometimes it is a horde of Barbarians. According to Ecclesiastes 3, the wise man will know the difference.

    Meanwhile we have an enemy in Satan whose strategy since day one is the same as it is today – constantly attack the word of God. I find it interesting that all the conservative evangelical seminaries were founded in the last 100 years. Which means that the seminaries before them all lost the polemical battle over truth.

  10. Matthias says:

    My only peeve here is that you’re sounding WAAAY too balanced!

    oh, and :)

    Matthias

  11. Trey Medley says:

    I have always thought that a real mark of a thoughtful (and careful) person (polemicist or not) is truly being able to see the other side. If you can genuinely put yourself in your opponents shoes and see legitimate reasons that he or she might have for adopting the position he or she does (and not just “they’re evil” or variations thereof), then you likely have genuinely understood the position and can have a productive conversation (instead of just yelling at each other). I’m not saying you see their reasons and think they are just as good as yours, but you should be able to identify what is valid in an opposing position as well as what is mistaken in it (and possibly what is mistaken in your own) if you are to speak the truth *in love*. Remember, people are not the enemy (our battle is *not* against flesh and blood). If you can’t see any possible valid reason for adopting an opposing position (even if you find it woefully underwhelming), then it’s likely you’ve vilified your opponent, who is made in the image of God.

  12. Rose says:

    I have found Psalms 37 – 40 to be very rich meditation for one tempted to point #6. It really kicks in at Ps. 37:35,36. It’s really hard when it’s not just one lone pastor from the past who hurt you, but all of his confederates. And they keep showing up uninvited in places to which you fled.

  13. I love this…and…
    I would also add that hyper-Polemicists are literally no fun to be around. Like inviting a vegetarian to a meat party…

  14. “I have always thought that a real mark of a thoughtful (and careful) person (polemicist or not) is truly being able to see the other side. If you can genuinely put yourself in your opponents shoes and see legitimate reasons that he or she might have for adopting the position he or she does (and not just “they’re evil” or variations thereof), then you likely have genuinely understood the position…”

    I’m sorry, I definitely have to disagree with this. There are certain very clear-cut moral issues where those who take the immoral viewpoint simply don’t have a leg to stand on. For example, liberals want to take away the right to life from both unborn infants and other people whom they view as a “burden” on society, such as the old and disabled. Just recently, a boy in Texas was declared to be “in a persistent vegetative state,” and a doctor tried to dehydrate him to death without the parents’ permission. Thankfully he was rescued, but that’s just a taste of what the Democrats would like to see enacted all over the country.

    At a certain point, it’s not “thoughtful” or “reasonable” anymore to try to see the good in the opposing viewpoint. There are certain debates where I do think we shouldn’t demonize our opposition (do I vote 3rd party or Republican, is God truly present in communion or is it simply a memorial, are Catholics truly saved or not, etc.), but when it gets bad enough, our opposition pretty much demonizes themselves.

  15. Mel says:

    Yankeegirl going at things from a political point of view is certainly not scriptural. Being a democrat does not make a person an unbeliever.

    Where I see Trey coming from is the ability to recognize that different spiritual gifts can cause a person to see a situation differently. A Christian that is trying to show mercy to someone suffering from same-sex attraction to the point that they may be compromising the truth cannot be convinced by strong arm attacks. I may see it as black and white but I lack that gift and want people to just stop it. Where my gift can be used is to give the believer with that gift some grace and continue to remind them of the truth.
    In the same way I need to let those people teach me. To assume that I am always completely in the right with nothing to learn is definitely a spiritual problem for me.

    It is entirely possible that a doctor can see it immoral to keep someone alive in an unnatural way without being a monster.

  16. “It is entirely possible that a doctor can see it immoral to keep someone alive in an unnatural way without being a monster.”

    Ummmm, giving a person food and drink isn’t keeping him alive in an unnatural way. What’s next, Hitler might have had a legitimate reason for murdering the Jews? Crikey.

  17. Very good article.

    I’d add one more thing to be aware of – the “Insult Effect.” If you’re debating an issue with someone, the chances are great that you can change their opinion with good reasoning and facts. But at slightest hint of insult, those chances drop to zero. People’s minds slam shut once they’ve been insulted.

    When you’re angry over an issue, you mentally accuse people of all sorts of things. Its nearly impossible not to insult them. So all your ire is for naught because your opponent quits listening to you.

  18. Jerry Shepherd says:

    Very good post, but I’d like to make one slight correction with regard to NT Wright. With some of his sideswiping comments, he frustrates me as well. Also, unfortunately, he writes quite cryptically at times. And one case in particular has to do with what you mentioned about “going to heaven when you die.” He actually never argues against this understanding. In fact, he very definitely believes in an intermediate state. A repeated phrase in his writings is that the believer’s resurrection is “life after life after death.” He does believe that the believer has an intermediate existence with Christ after death, and that this existence, since Christ is in heaven, is probably therefore in heaven. What has caused the confusion is that he does say that when the believer dies, he does not go to a place called “the kingdom of heaven.” For Wright, the “kingdom of heaven” is actually on earth at the resurrection. To be sure, he could certainly have been much clearer on this. But “kingdom” is the crucial word in the distinction he is trying to make.

    Jerry

  19. Then again Lois, if you realize that the person is a jerk who’s a waste of your time anyway no matter how polite you are, might as well say “You’re a jerk. Have a nice day,” so you can get it off your chest and move on. :-D

  20. L. E. Clerk says:

    Really appreciate your article, Kevin, especially since I hope to become a balanced polemicist myself (and no, that is not an oxymoron). It is quite possible.

    I am reminded of an idea I stole/”repurposed” from C.S. Lewis’ rant on education in The Abolition of Man to my rant on Christians in general. It essentially boils down to this: “Stop spending so much time cutting down jungles, criticizing other believers, talking about what you don’t agree with and who you don’t like; and start irrigating deserts, loving people, living well, speaking charitably, and majoring on the majors.”

    Sometimes I just want to tell Christian leaders, authors, professors, bloggers, and yes, even myself, to shuuuuuuut up already and do something worthwhile like share the gospel (seriously, when was the last time you did that?), say hi to the homeless man and maybe even take ten minutes to have a conversation with him about his day (homeless people have “days” too), befriend the workers at the places you frequently shop (and your own co-workers as well!), stop talking about boundaries and get acquainted with the exhaustion that comes from pouring yourself out for the kingdom of God. Give your money, forego the granite countertops, l-i-s-t-e-n to “unimportant” people that won’t further your career or make you better known, embrace the hidden life of faithfulness that often is lived in obscurity, and for the love of God, please, please, please start living like the love of God is real so that other people have reason to believe that it is!

    If you’re sitting back in this moment, scratching your head at the irony of what I just wrote, looking for the “balance” in my little “non-polemic” rant, I’d tell you that the type of Christian living I described above is not compulsive or fear-driven or joyless or frantic, but rather it is born from a place of peace—a place of rest that resides in the reality of grace, and revels in the truth that living for the kingdom really is a privilege and God designed it to produce in us joy.

    It’s the heart of the act that brings the balance.

    You are free to give and serve and sacrifice and share and, yes, sometimes to shut-up, because God cares more about the mission than you do. No doubt love is the foundation of the Christian life, which is why we plunge courageously into the messy world around us with great passion, promise, and peace, seeking not to destroy but to build, not to cast off but to bring in, not to cut down but to irrigate.

    Jungles. Deserts. Polemics. Balance.

    God help us all.

  21. L. E. Clerk says:

    For context, I wrote the above response as an affirmation of what you wrote and a subsequent exhortation to the struggling polemicist.

  22. Dan McGhee says:

    Reading this article, I couldn’t help but wonder what C.H. Spurgeon might think of it. Here are some of his thoughts which seem quite fitting to the subject matter at hand…

    “There are some truths which must be believed; they are essential to salvation, and if not heartily accepted, the soul will be ruined.

    Now, in [the early church], the saints did not say, as the sham saints do now, “We must be largely charitable, and leave this brother to his own opinion; he sees truth from a different standpoint, and has a rather different way of putting it, but his opinions are as good as our own, and we must not say that he is in error.”

    That is at present the fashionable way of trifling with divine truth, and making things pleasant all round. Thus the gospel is debased, and “another gospel” propagated.

    I should like to ask modern broad churchmen whether there is any doctrine of any sort for which it would be worth a man’s while to burn or to lie in prison. I do not believe they could give me an answer, for if their latitudinarianism be correct, the martyrs were fools of the first magnitude.

    From what I see of their writings and their teachings, it appears to me that the modern thinkers treat the whole compass of revealed truth with entire indifference; and, though perhaps they may feel sorry that wilder spirits should go too far in free thinking, and though they had rather they would be more moderate, yet, upon the whole, so large is their liberality that they are not sure enough of anything to be able to condemn the reverse of it as a deadly error.

    To them black and white are terms which may be applied to the same colour, as you view it from different standpoints. Yea and nay are equally true in their esteem. Their theology shifts like the Goodwin Sands, and they regard all firmness as so much bigotry. Errors and truths are equally comprehensible within the circle of their charity.

    It was not in this way that the apostles regarded error. They did not prescribe large-hearted charity towards falsehood, or hold up the errorist as a man of deep thought, whose views were “refreshingly original”; far less did they utter some wicked nonsense about the probability of there living more faith in honest doubt than in half the creeds. They did not believe in justification by doubting, as our neologians do; they set about the conversion of the erring brother; they treated him as a person who needed conversion; and viewed him as a man who, if he were not converted, would suffer the death of his soul, and be covered with a multitude of sins.

    They were not such easygoing people as our cultured friends of the school of “modern thought”, who have learned at last that the Deity of Christ may be denied, the work of the Holy Spirit ignored, the inspiration of Scripture rejected, the atonement disbelieved, and regeneration dispensed with, and yet the man who does all this may be as good a Christian as the most devout believer!

    O God, deliver us from this deceitful infidelity, which, while it does damage to the erring man, and often prevents his being reclaimed, does yet more mischief to our own hearts by teaching us that truth is unimportant, and falsehood a trifle, and so destroys our allegiance to the God of truth, and makes us traitors instead of loyal subjects to the King of kings!”

  23. Josh. says:

    Dan,

    Aren’t you the guy who tweets non-stop everyday negatively about your former brethren in Chicago?

    You are guilty of #’s 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7 at least.

    Might be time to grow up and stop attacking everyone.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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